How To Save Chicago Schools? Fix the Flat Tax, Say Community Members

Matthew Blake

Austerity measures like school closures and teacher layoffs have set off waves of street protests over the past six months. Now, some activists are turning their attention to raising revenue. (Chicago Teachers Union Facebook)

It’s just been a lot of chaos,” Chica­go par­ent Wendy Kat­ten said to an audi­ence full of Chica­go par­ents and stu­dents regard­ing the pub­lic school district’s last two years — and going for­ward, she adds, The fore­cast is kind of gloomy.”

Few would dis­pute Katten’s assess­ment. Chica­go made nation­al head­lines for a city­wide teacher’s strike in Sep­tem­ber 2012 and the con­tro­ver­sial clo­sures of 50 schools last spring, among oth­er upheavals.

Many par­ents, teach­ers and com­mu­ni­ty activists say they are fed up with May­or Rahm Emanuel’s aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures and his shift­ing of funds from tra­di­tion­al pub­lic schools to char­ter schools. Emanuel and Chica­go Pub­lic Schools (CPS) Chief Exec­u­tive Offi­cer Bar­bara Byrd-Ben­nett, mean­while, say that they are address­ing long-fes­ter­ing bud­get prob­lems caused by their pre­de­ces­sors in pub­lic office.

The sit­u­a­tion grew worse on Tues­day, when CPS offi­cials acknowl­edged that they had sent lay­off notices to an addi­tion­al 94 employ­ees, due to fund­ing shortages.

Chica­go com­mu­ni­ty activists dis­grun­tled with the city’s approach met at a town hall meet­ing on Wednes­day to devel­op their own strat­e­gy to improve the pub­lic schools. Raise Your Hand, a par­ent-led edu­ca­tion non-prof­it in Chica­go cofound­ed by Kat­ten, called the meeting.

Speak­ers most­ly agreed that CPS’s next cri­sis is its long-term finances, and that the imme­di­ate focus should be on ways to bet­ter fund neigh­bor­hood schools.

The most-dis­cussed solu­tion: Raise mon­ey for schools through a pro­gres­sive income tax to replace Illi­nois’ flat tax. Cur­rent­ly, every res­i­dent, from Oprah Win­frey to a fast-food work­er, hands over 5 per­cent of her year­ly earn­ings to the state.

A pro­gres­sive income tax is a pri­or­i­ty for the next year,” said Kat­ten to Work­ing In These Times after the meet­ing. It’s a lever that can bring in a lot of rev­enue we need.”

On the heels of the 50 school clos­ings, which were billed as a cost-sav­ing mea­sure, the Chica­go Board of Edu­ca­tion approved2013 – 2014 school year bud­get in August that includ­ed more than $100 mil­lion in cuts to neigh­bor­hood schools and 3,000 layoffs.

Emanuel and Byrd-Ben­nett blame the under­fund­ed teacher pen­sion fund. The dis­trict paid $405 mil­lion more into the fund in 2013 – 14 than 2012 – 13 due to the expi­ra­tion of a so-called state hol­i­day” on full pen­sion pay­ments. Unless the state rein­states this hol­i­day or pass­es leg­is­la­tion that cuts pen­sion ben­e­fits, city lead­ers warn more cuts are on the way. Leg­is­la­tion that would curb pub­lic work­er pen­sion ben­e­fits has pow­er­ful sup­port­ers in the state gov­ern­ment, includ­ing Speak­er of the House Mike Madi­gan and Gov. Pat Quinn, both Chica­go Democ­rats, but no vote has been scheduled.

The Chica­go Teach­ers Union and pro­gres­sive advo­cates have long argued that cut­ting teacher’s pen­sion ben­e­fits is unfair to edu­ca­tors who have con­sis­tent­ly paid into the pen­sion sys­tem. It also may vio­late the state con­sti­tu­tion, which guar­an­tees pub­lic employ­ees their con­trac­tu­al­ly stip­u­lat­ed retire­ment benefits.

How­ev­er, all sides of the Chica­go edu­ca­tion debate agree that one prob­lem is a lack of state fund­ing. The Land of Lin­coln ranks dead last among states in per-pupil money.

A pro­gres­sive state income tax with more mon­ey ear­marked for the Illi­nois Board of Education’s per-pupil fund has emerged, then, as an alter­na­tive solu­tion to at least par­tial­ly address CPS’s finan­cial prob­lems. On Mon­day, mem­bers of the Bet­ter Illi­nois coali­tion deliv­ered150,000-signature peti­tion to state law­mak­ers call­ing for such a tax.

A pro­gres­sive tax is some­thing that most states do,” point­ed out Peter Starzyn­s­ki, field direc­tor for Bet­ter Illi­nois, at Wednesday’s meet­ing. Indeed, 34 of the 41 states with an income tax require wealth­i­er res­i­dents to pay a greater per­cent­age of their earnings.

Emanuel and CPS offi­cials have not tak­en a posi­tion on a pro­gres­sive income tax. Gov. Quinn and state Sen­ate Pres­i­dent John Culler­ton, a Chica­go Demo­c­rat, sup­port the tax change.

But the flat income tax is writ­ten into the state con­sti­tu­tion, and an amend­ment requires both a 60 per­cent major­i­ty of state law­mak­ers and the governor’s approval. Then, a major­i­ty of Illi­nois vot­ers would have to approve the amend­ment in a bal­lot initiative.

If they were any time that such a sce­nario would be con­ceiv­able, it is now. The Illi­nois leg­is­la­ture is 60 per­cent Demo­c­ra­t­ic, and Illi­nois res­i­dents have spent the last five years hear­ing about the state’s finan­cial cri­sis. We real­ly think there is a win­dow of oppor­tu­ni­ty to get this done,” Starzyn­s­ki said to the town hall audi­ence. Starzynski’s goal is to have the state leg­is­la­ture pass the amend­ment in the spring and to get the mea­sure on state bal­lots next November.

Anoth­er poten­tial source of rev­enue for CPS is sur­plus mon­ey from Chicago’s Tax Incre­ment Finance, or TIF, eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment pro­gram. Leg­is­la­tion in Chicago’s City Coun­cil calls for the release of what would effec­tive­ly amount to about $200 mil­lion in TIF mon­ey, around half of which would go to CPS. The major­i­ty of alder­men sup­port the mea­sure, but Emanuel oppos­es it. The mayor’s bud­get instead pro­pos­es releas­ing 25 per­cent of the TIF surplus.

Kat­ten told Work­ing In These Times that there would be a last push” to pass the TIF ordi­nance next week before the Chica­go City Coun­cil votes on Emanuel’s pro­posed 2014 budget.

Non-finan­cial issues that arose at the town hall includ­ed a pre­sen­ta­tion from Cassie Criswell about how par­ents can get their stu­dents to opt of some stan­dard­ized test­ing. Criswell is founder of More than a Score Chica­go, a group that believes that stan­dard­ized tests are poor mea­sures of stu­dent achieve­ment and hurt the qual­i­ty of education.

Criswell acknowl­edged that the dis­trict reduced in August the num­ber of class­room hours ele­men­tary stu­dents must spend tak­ing stan­dard­ized tests. But she argued that over-test­ing is still ram­pant” and that such tests are mis­used” to judge teach­ers as part of the state’s teacher per­for­mance eval­u­a­tion system.

Also, sev­er­al atten­dees restat­ed their call for the Chica­go School board to be elect­ed, instead of appoint­ed by the may­or. Chica­go is the only school dis­trict in Illi­nois with an appoint­ed school board, which the teacher’s union and many oth­er crit­ics say makes the board a rub­ber stamp for the mayor’s policies.

But Rod Est­van, an edu­ca­tion pol­i­cy spe­cial­ist at the dis­abil­i­ty rights group Access Liv­ing, con­tend­ed that the pro­gres­sive tax was the most impor­tant of the pro­pos­als on the table. We need to work on a long-term strat­e­gy for rev­enue gen­er­a­tion,” said Est­van in a pre­sen­ta­tion at the meet­ing, and a big part of that strat­e­gy is to look at the income tax structure.”

Matthew Blake is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based in Chica­go. He has writ­ten for the Chica­go Jour­nal, Wash­ing­ton Month­ly, Wash­ing­ton Inde­pen­dent and The Nation, among oth­er publications.
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